Vision for a Digital Ireland is not a pipe dream

9 Jul 2018

Image: Chiociolla/Shutterstock

Unfortunately, Ireland is still a two-speed digital economy when it comes broadband infrastructure and cloud efficiency, writes John Kennedy.

Several years ago, ran a monthly newspaper supplement called Digital Ireland in a national publication, and it ran for the best part of a decade.

A decade ago, as Ireland plunged into recession and people scrambled for ideas, our contribution was to encourage Ireland to play to its strengths. With the support of the leaders of the biggest tech multinationals, we campaigned for a Digital 21 Strategy, a vision of an Ireland with digital sinews that lifted all boats and prospects from connectivity to skills, education, innovation and policy.

The idea was to create something that would be budgeted and deployed, something along the lines of Transport 21.

We would like to think that, at best, we informed policymakers and educated the masses. Not long after, strategies such as the National Broadband Plan (NBP) came to be. Lamentably, the NBP – which was unveiled by then Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte, TD, in 2012 as a kind of silver bullet to join the digital dots in rural Ireland – is still waiting to start. With one last consortium – Enet-SSE – in the race, it is envisaged that 542,000 people in rural areas will start getting services from later this year. There have been lots of stops but very few starts.

Over the years, we have seen the term Digital Ireland pop up in various policy documents, including the Labour Party’s manifesto for the 2011 Irish general elections.

In June, Irish Government CIO Barry Lowry, in collaboration with Microsoft Ireland’s Cathriona Hallahan, published a new report called Enabling Digital Ireland, which once again set out objectives for Ireland being a digital leader rather than a laggard.

On the face of it, Ireland doesn’t appear to be doing too badly on the digital front. The country scored 16th in Fletcher School’s Digital Evolution Index and, as we all know, tech giants from Google to Amazon are building glittering tech palaces in cities such as Dublin and Cork as thousands of new digital jobs arrive in the country each month.

Ireland’s public services are still under-digitised

But all is not well in Ireland. More offices are being built than homes and the broadband revolution is still confined to cities as towns and rural areas remain left behind.

But people do dare to dream and innovate. This morning (9 July), we reported how An Post’s Postman Padraig made the service’s first drone parcel delivery, going from Roonagh Pier in Mayo to Clare Island. Fingal County Council recently unveiled a fleet of electric vans for its workers. Smart Dublin, a collaboration by Dublin’s four local authorities, recently revealed that €900,000 in funding is available to entrepreneurs and researchers for five critical projects to use technology to improve city living as part of the Dublin Action Plan for Jobs. Not only that, but Vodafone is to test NB-IoT sensors in the city’s Docklands Smart District as part of the wider Smart Dublin initiative.

The Enabling Digital Ireland report makes for interesting reading and notes the great strides Ireland has made towards becoming a digital nation. However, it warns that Ireland needs to foster digital entrepreneurship and attract skilled tech talent from around the world. Politely put, we cannot rely on multinationals to keep delivering the majority of new jobs.

Critically, it notes that Ireland’s public services are still under-digitised. The answer to this is the delivery of superior digital services with a cloud-friendly strategy and policy framework at the core. The report even suggests that Ireland can emulate established digital leaders such as Estonia and New Zealand.

At the heart of Lowry’s report is a plan to implement ‘go digital’ policies that drive efficiencies across the public service. Absolutely. These are laudable ideas but, sadly, we’ve heard some of this before. Anyone remember the Smart Economy or e-Government?

And, unless connectivity to high-speed broadband is universal, there will always be digital haves and digital have-nots.

The two-speed digital economy

During a visit to hospital with my mother last week, it was clear to me how much of a two-speed digital nation Ireland is.

In the reception area of a clinic in a major national hospital, a porter grappled with giant blue boxes stacked like bricks and stuffed with paper files related to outpatients arriving that day, while the doctor was able to pull up some of her digital records on a computer. Why aren’t all records digital in this day and age? In fact, why can’t digital be used to decisively solve the hospital crisis in Ireland, a crisis that is more about poor administration than anything else? Or, how is it possible in this digital age that people are faced with a two-month long wait for passports?

Ireland’s digital odyssey so far has been a bit like the curate’s egg – only splendid in parts. Citizens in Ireland can avail of excellent services such as the ability to pay their taxes on Revenue Online Service, book NCTs or even check-in library books digitally. With the internet as its hub, a feisty young regional Irish airline called Ryanair became one of the biggest airlines in Europe within two decades.

And yet, if you do not have a basic broadband connection, you cannot apply for jobs, book holidays or avail of any of these digital services, and you are effectively cut off from the 21st century.

In the past, I have urged planners to appreciate how western regional towns are crying out for a chance for the digital economy to come their way. Surely remote working could afford workers a better quality of work-life balance instead of crushing their spines in nonsensical city commutes. With the right fibre connections and enabling policies, new economic and social life can breathe into regional towns.

As I’ve pointed out before, visions of an Ireland with a digital pulse are nothing new. Anyone remember the Ennis Information Age Town?

Lowry and Hallahan’s Enabling Digital Ireland report has lots of merit and I would recommend giving it a read. The linchpin for making it work is getting Ireland from 16th place into the global top five. It is doable.

But without the NBP – which has received €500m in backing from the European Investment Bank – getting started on time and without proper broadband across the country, people will get left behind.

A vision for a Digital Ireland is not a pipe dream. Technology can and should solve problems that transcend the health system and more.

New opportunities to explore how blockchain could be used to establish credibility, a paper trail and integrity across areas such as taxation, farming and medicine could be groundbreaking.

But without the connectivity and the actual political will to see it through, any vision for a Digital Ireland will remain a concept and not a reality.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years